(Pictured: Roman Forum
Not pictured: Fainting tourists)
The tourist season has begun. It begins very suddenly in the first couple of weeks of March, but it feels as if it happens overnight. All of a sudden there are tourists clogging up the streets of the city centre and people speaking English everywhere. I always take the relative peace and quiet of the winter for granted…
Last night I had dinner with a friend at Luzzi, a trattoria near the Colosseum that had been recommended by a (tourist) friend. She’d assured me that the food was very good and that it wasn’t touristy. The pizza was decent, but she was wrong about the tourists. I’d estimate that Luzzi’s clientele was 95% tourists. The ones who aren’t aware of Monti’s existence tend to flock to the restaurants to the east of the Colosseum, towards San Giovanni.
My friend and I are both expats who speak Italian, and it was strange having a waiter addressing us in English. After you’ve lived in a country for a while, you start to get a bit snobby about tourists, feeling superior, but all it takes is a meal at a restaurant in a certain part of town to realise that in the eyes of the locals, you’re still very much a straniera (foreigner).
Before I was an expat in Rome, I was a tourist. A couple of times as a teenager – on a family holiday and on a school trip – and once when I was at university. I stayed in a hostel near Termini for three weeks while doing an internship at Keats-Shelley House, and it was then that I decided I wanted to be more than a tourist. Three weeks was not enough.
I know what it’s like to be a tourist in Rome, and I’ve made my fair share of mistakes. Inspired by the groups of tourists that are suddenly surrounding me on the metro and walking at a snail’s pace down Via dei Fori Imperiali, here’s a list:
Tourist mistakes in Rome
1) Eating in the wrong restaurants. If it’s right next to a major tourist attraction (ie: the Colosseum), the menu is displayed in six languages, and there are no Italians eating there, it’s not going to be very good.
2) Sticking to the tourist map. The generic tourist map available at hotels and hostels is certainly useful, but it misses some interesting neighbourhoods. It excludes Testaccio, for example, which is where all the good restaurants are. All right, not all of them. But a lot.
3) Over-reliance on public transport. It is a truth universally acknowledged that Rome’s public transport is terrible. Did you know that Rome is actually pretty small, for a capital city? Forget the metro and the buses, and walk instead. You’ll get to know the city much better, and it’s much more pleasant than standing in a crowded, stuffy metro carriage while someone tries to steal your purse.
4) Inappropriate cappuccino drinking. It’s acceptable to drink a cappuccino in the morning, on its own or with breakfast. I have been known to drink a cappuccino after 12pm, but only if I’ve got up late and it still feels like the morning to me. I think it’s just about okay to have a cappuccino on its own in the afternoon, but if you drink it with or after lunch or dinner, I’m with the Italians – you’re weird.
5) Over tipping. As a compulsive tipper, I’m guilty of this. I’m only just beginning to accept that it’s not necessary to tip, and that if you do tip, a small amount is fine. This isn’t New York. You’re not going to get angry waiters chasing after you if you don’t leave enough.
6) Expecting good customer service. I think this is mainly an issue with American tourists, who expect charming, smiley staff in restaurants and ticket offices. Italians just don’t have the same standards, and don’t care if they have a slightly surly waiter.
7) Dressing inappropriately. It’s early March. It’s not summer. It’s barely spring! Go out in a t-shirt and shorts if you like, but you’re going to regret it in the evening, when it’s 7 degrees. Also, only wear flip flops if you want to get filthy feet and cripple yourself in the process.
8) Not bothering to learn about Roman history. Since I started working for a tour company and writing endless articles/tweets about Roman history, I’ve become much more passionate on the subject of people learning about Rome, and understanding what they’re visiting. My tourist friend told me she’d visited the Palatine Hill, and I asked her if she knew why the Palatine was important. “No.” She’d had a perfectly pleasant stroll on the hill, and no doubt enjoyed the views of the Forum, but I think it’s a shame to visit such fascinating, historical sites without knowing anything about the history. (The Palatine, for the record, is the legendary location of the foundation of Rome – the Romulus and Remus myth – and was home to emperors such as Domitian and Augustus).
9) Queuing for La Bocca della Verità. Do you really want to wait in line for half an hour so you can take a photo of a drain cover? I mean, it’s a nice old drain cover, but in terms of interesting things to do in Rome, it’s right at the bottom of the list. For more on this underwhelming experience, see An American in Rome‘s post.
10) Visiting in August. If you plan on doing actual sightseeing, August is the worst time you could possibly visit. Temperatures are often in the high thirties, and it’s humid. Inexplicably, some tourists decide to go on lengthy tours in the middle of day, which leads to people regularly being stretchered out of the Roman Forum.
Bonus personal prejudice point!
11) Going on segway tours. Segways are stupid and I actively judge everyone trundling along the gravel of the Giardino degli Aranci, like lemmings on wheels. When I see segway tour groups, two thoughts go through my mind: “Arrested Development” and “Lazy”. Use your head – and your legs – and do some independent exploring on foot.